Of course, in order to do that, I had to talk about the school, and I wrote about my son because in some ways, he would have been an ideal victim. He wasn’t. He wasn’t in part because of the teachers and their certain faith in a Principal who backed them up.
I’ve spoken about my son’s grade two educational aide.
What I haven’t mentioned in any detail is that my son was not the only child with whom Mr. Virk worked. The other boy was not ASD. He was in no conceivable way -- except for age and gender -- like my son. If my son did not pick up social cues, and, until the middle of the year, had not developed the theory of mind that neurotypical children develop by age three, he was nonetheless a reasonable child if you understand his particular quirks.
The other child who also shared Mr. Virk’s time was not.
I had seen this child in the schoolyard since my son first entered school in junior kindergarten, and I admit that I detested him. He was more than unkind; he once tried to push my son off the height of the kindergarten climbing gym -- and it was not a small drop. He could lie so convincingly that I would have believed him had I not seen the action that provoked the lie with my own eyes.
He was a child who understood that in any group, there must always be a victim - and he did his best to make sure that victim was never him. Often, he tried to make certain it was my son. This did not, as you might well imagine, endear him to me in any way. The fact that he was four ceased to matter. I do not think I have felt such visceral dislike for another person since my teenage years.
Was this reasonable? No. But there’s something enraging about anyone who tries to deliberately harm one’s children on so many occasions. I pretty much hovered over my son when I was in the school yard and this other child was also present.
I can give you the parts of his background I know: he was the middle child, one of three boys; his parents had divorced, and the divorce was not pleasant (the father had asked a neighbor of mine who knew them both to come to the hearing to testify that his wife was a crack addict, because he did not want the wife to have the children. The wife was not, of course, a crack addict). I have already mentioned what he was like in the school yard.
I was present when, at the age of six, he told one of the other mothers to f*ck off. She demanded that he apologize, and he said, “Or what? I’ll get sent to the office?” with a broad smirk. She said, “No. I will phone your mother right now.” He paled and apologized immediately. He was not afraid of going to the office or dealing with the principal. His mother was not always light on the corporal punishment, as I saw when she picked him up early one afternoon (he had been sent home). She was not out of the school before she hit him, while dragging him by the arm.
Did I feel sorry for him? Yes.
Did that change the way I felt about him? I would like to say that it did. But he was always unkind to my son whenever he thought he could get away with it, so I was torn between these two things. A better person than I am would have been able to reach out; I was afraid the reach would end with his throat.
This boy was the other child who was given into the care of Mr. Virk. He was therefore seated next to my son for the entire class. I was…anxious.
A long while back, I started these posts to talk about the way the bullying problems were resolved in the elementary school my sons attended. Some of the problems were resolved in this way: by adult mediation and interaction. The child had grown accustomed over the stretch of almost four years to life in the office; he had grown accustomed to being thought of as the bully whose temper was so malicious. He was not going to just disappear - it was public school. There was no exit. The other children were going to deal with him for the rest of their school life.
Corporal punishment is, of course, forbidden. The ‘send to office’ punishments clearly held no terror for the child. People who advise more draconian punishment might feel justified - but the tools for punishment had not worked at all.
And to end bullying in the school required a different kind of intervention. This child felt - subjectively - that the world was not fair. There was no justice. It was a jungle. He understood the rules of the jungle.
What he had to be made to understand was the fact that he was not living in a jungle.
I often walked my son to his classroom if I wanted to have a word with Mr. Virk, or if Mr. Virk wanted to have a word with me. My son settled easily; the other child appeared to be sullen, but not entirely uncooperative. Since the other child wasn’t mine, I couldn’t really discuss him with the aide. I was therefore left to observe.
One of the phrases that Mr. Virk used almost constantly when talking to this other child was “Clean anger. Everyone gets angry. It’s normal. But it’s important to express anger cleanly.”
I had seen this boy on the playground for years, and I had never seen him angry. Sullen, malicious, defiant, yes - but not angry. I was curious, because of this, but it was clear that Mr. Virk felt the source of most of the trouble he caused was his anger.
Half-way through the school year, I walked into the classroom and this boy I had seen lie, swear at parents, and try to injure my son, was shaking with rage. He lifted a chair, he dropped it; his hands were fists. And Mr. Virk was watching. He was seated, he was alert, but he was just watching. He said, “yes. This is good. Clean anger.” He accepted the presentation of the anger as it was because the child had not, in fact, attempted to hit anyone else with the chair; he had not turned to vent his rage on any other child in the class. He was shaking with anger - but the only thing he did was pick the chair up and slam it down a few times while shaking.
I understood, watching him in some surprise, that this was a huge step for him. He was owning his anger, rather than sliding it sideways into destruction in his resentment for people who had so much more than he did. At seven.
I firmly believe he could do this because he trusted Mr. Virk, and unlike my son, this boy did not trust easily. Would that have been enough to turn him around?
I don’t believe so.
What Mr. Virk’s work required was the support system of a school that was dedicated to creating a safe space for all of its students. My son had never been known as a bully. He was odd and quirky, but he was not unkind, and he was known, by this time, for his honesty. He was taken at his word.
This boy was known for his lies, and his sneakiness; for his unexpected violence (see: pushing small son off the top of the climbing gym above). It was hard for him to untangle the defensive and protective responses he’d built. It was work.
And in an environment where children are pigeon-holed and kept in boxes that delineate their ‘role’ or ‘place’, he might have retreated into them again. But…his work, his effort, was acknowledged. It was encouraged. And when he left himself open to what he feared - victimization and marginalization - it was a test of what he’d been told by the adults he had grown, so hesitantly, to trust.
They had to be there for him. They had to see him. They had to believe him when he was telling the truth. If he was picked on by other kids, they had to be there for him in the same way they were there for my son and for other children who had not built his reputation in the school.
He really did not expect it. I think, at seven, he hoped - but he expected nothing. He was ready to retreat into his ‘unclean’ anger.
But it didn’t happen. The Principal had the same rules and expectations for every child in her school. She was in the playground every day, before school, after lunch, during recesses. She watched the kids. She knew them. She had to, if she was to provide the impartial judgement by which the school needed to run if it was to uproot and eradicate bullying.
She knew she was not going to get this knowledge by sitting behind a desk all day. Rain, snow or heat - if the kids were expected to go outside, she went, too.
She had to address the bullies, not as dangers to the other kids, but as the children they were. And between the two - the educational aide and the Principal, they did. When something upset this boy, she listened. She evaluated it. She acted. She acted in the same way she would have acted for the school’s best students. And he learned to trust that, and to let go of unclean anger.
My son, who was justifiably not fond of this boy, watched him change. And he believed that he had changed.
When my son graduated in grade six, Sara was the valedictorian for her grade. She was a girl who read a ferocious amount, and she participated in everything. She was open, young in the best way, excited about learning and discovery. She was popular because of these characteristics. Where she lead, it was fun to follow. My son liked her; she talked to him about the books she was reading. And about some of their class projects. She talked to everyone.
She gave a lovely speech, but it was striking for me because the one thing she did was she thanked Jane Fletcher. Jane, she said, have given them all a safe space in which they could learn without fear. The school itself. It’s not generally the type of thing one hears from a grade six student - but she understood, as my son did, the meaning of safe space.
And the principal understood that that space had to be safe for everyone in it, to the best of her abilities. Not just my ASD son - although she was so incredibly important in the tone she set for his elementary school life - but all of the children. Even the very, very difficult ones. She had no favorites that the students were aware of. My son was absolutely certain that the best students - and the worst ones - would suffer the same fate for the same crime.
All of the children did; it was essential to make the environment work. She was utterly consistent, and they knew she would be. They trusted that.